05 February 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear I

My excellent friend the Snow Queen (I call her that for reasons you may or may not be able to work out) has written about our arctic adventures, so I don't have to. Thanks! But since the polar bear was such a leitmotif of our travels, particularly in Svalbard, I thought I'd follow up with a little footnote rounding up some of the polar bears in Old Norse-Icelandic literature. But just before that, if you think there is something funny about the franked stamp to the left (a genuine one on a postcard that I sent), you're right. There aren't 52 days in January. I'm assuming that's a typo for 25 (the day after we left), but I'm wondering how it came about... Do they still use hand stamps with those rotating numbers for setting up the date?

Anyway, back to ice bears. Of course everyone's favourite and the best known example is from that staple of beginners' Old Norse courses, the Tale of Audun from the West Fjords, as it has most recently been translated. I don't want to spoil the story for those who have not read it yet - it's a short tale that will give you great pleasure and also food for thought! But basically it concerns a young Icelander who makes his way in the world by working for a travelling merchant in Norway and Greenland. In Greenland he gives all he has for a bear. Then, through a really risky series of voyages, involving treacherous stewards, encounters and delicate negotiations with the kings of Norway and Denmark, and a tough pilgrimage to Rome, he returns to Iceland a wealthy and respected person. The bear disappears partway through the story and we never really find out what happened to the creature. I guess its real role in the story is to illustrate both Audun's risk-taking and his cleverness. Having given all he had for a bear, a bear from Greenland, and therefore a rarity and a 'treasure' (as the story calls it), it takes real guts and wits to transform that bear into a fortunate outcome for himself, indeed an outcome that is not at all certain until the end. I haven't spoiled the story for you because it's how he does it that is the real interest of the tale. Indeed, the American professor of law William Ian Miller has written a whole book about the intricacies of this jewel of Old Icelandic narrative (though beware, students, there are two versions of the tale, with some interesting differences).

Tethered polar bear cub in Svalbard
Museum, Longyearbyen
Given the long sea-voyages involved, and the nature of polar bears, one has to assume that when Audun first acquired it in Greenland, the bear was a cub (compare the stuffed version we saw in the museum, right). Audun was not himself a hunter, the story makes clear that he paid for it. The story also makes clear that things got a bit tricky when he couldn't afford to feed it any more, as it must have grown faster than he anticipated and a hungry polar bear is a fearsome sight to behold.

Audun's tale is set in the middle of the eleventh century. Giving polar bears to important people seems to have been quite the fashion back in those days, though we're never really told what these VIPs did with them. Presumably, they died an early death, but their skins would still have made a nice decoration for the royal hall. Iceland's first bishop, Ísleifr Gizurarson, took a hvítabjörn 'white bear' with him to the emperor Heinrich III in Saxony on his inaugural voyage in around 1056, which did the trick as Heinrich gave him his protection for the rest of his journey throughout the empire, according to Hungrvaka (ch. 2). But Ísleifr did not go to Greenland for the bear, rather the text explicitly says the bear was kominn...af Grœnlandi 'come from Greenland'. Perhaps someone else brought it, or the bear might have come floating to Iceland on an ice floe, something which still happens nowadays, most recently last summer. Nowadays it does not generally end well for the bear because they are a real danger to both humans and livestock. And I wonder if Ísleifr's bear may not rather have ended up as a rug than as a real, living animal in Saxony....

Map from Nordic Adventure
Travel, nat.is
Similarly, the hero of Vatnsdœla saga, Ingimundr inn gamli, having only recently arrived in Iceland, sails back to Norway to get some timber to build himself a splendid dwelling, and takes with him no less than three bears (a she-bear and her two cubs) as a gift for his patron King Haraldr Finehair, which he graciously accepts (chs 15-16). No doubt the bears played their part in the king's extremely generous return gift of a ship loaded with timber, but then Ingimundr was one of the few settlers of Iceland who was in good odour with that king. The other interest of the anecdote is that Ingimundr and his men found the bears on the ice during the winter, when there was a lot of ice around. In the north of Iceland, a bay (Húnaflói), a fjord (Húnafjörðr) and a lake (Húnavatn) are all supposedly named after the bear cubs they found (húnn being the word for a bear-cub), as can be seen from the map above. Well, it's a nice story, though probably apocryphal.

In Grœnlendinga þáttr, a short tale set rather later, in the twelfth century, the inhabitants of Greenland twice try to use bears to ingratiate themselves with important people, only once successfully. In the very first chapter, we meet the important and well-respected Sokki, who feels the community is not complete without a bishop, and sends his son Einarr to Norway to arrange this, with gifts of walrus ivory and hides. Once the bishop thing is sorted (bishops didn't really like the Greenland gig), Einarr gives King Sigurðr Jórsalafari a bear which he happened to have brought with him from Greenland, in return for which he gets praise and honour from the king. Later in the tale, things didn't go so well with the Norwegian troublemaker Kolbeinn, who had killed Einarr and pleads his cause with King Haraldr gilli in Norway with the aid of the gift of a polar bear. But the king gathers that Kolbeinn is not telling the truth and kómu eigi laun fyrir dýrit 'no reward was forthcoming for the animal'. Soon afterwards, Kolbeinn gets his comeuppance and drowns.

These are just some of the most well-known instances of polar bears in Icelandic texts. Having started to look into it, I've realised there are many, many more, far too many to squeeze into one blog post. So I'll save some of them for another occasion.


  1. We could add to this list of historical / saga bears the one that turns up in the Eddic poem Atlamál in grœnlenzku. Admittedly it only appears in a dream, but the fact that when the dreamer relates his dream – that a huge bear came into the hall and smashed things up – to his wife, she makes the assumption that the bear is a white one, even though her husband hadn't specified the colour. This is the main evidence within the poem that the title we find in the Codex Regius, which identifies this poem as a specifically Greenlandic version of the horrible story of Atli, does indeed reflect a localised version of a Continental Germanic legend.

  2. I think post offices still do use hand stamps that you rotate and since the numbers will be back to front on the stamp I can see why the 52 mistake happened! When I arrived in India in 2006 I managed to bypass border control at my first airport stop by mistake. 6 months later and due to leave the country in 3 days I managed to finally get a backdated stamp on my passport (after a family friend's father bribed an official). The airport official simply walked over to the border control point, grabbed one of the stamps, asked me when I arrived and rewound the numbers until the right date. Luckily he didn't do this back to front and I was able to leave the country on my booked flight.